How to unwrap the gifts of a holiday reunion between Warriors and Cavaliers
Kevin Durant adds new plot in rivalry which could become an NBA Finals trilogy coming in June
CLEVELAND – There are a dozen different reasons why the significance of the most anxiously awaited game this season – Golden State at Cleveland (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the main event in the midst of five Christmas Day clashes – might not live up to the hype.
Qualifiers and asterisks abound: J.R. Smith is out now. … The Warriors still are redefining themselves barely 30 games into Kevin Durant’s arrival. … What matters for both these teams still is six months away. … Two crafty coaches are going to hold a few cards close to their vests. … Last year’s Christmas outcome didn’t matter much in the end, hmm, did it? And so on and so forth.
But if the two generally acclaimed best teams in the NBA cannot get up to face each other and give their competitive and athletic bests with much of (if not the whole) basketball world watching, then maybe the Board of Governors does need to cut the regular season down to about 40 games.
Better yet, if everyone involved can’t look forward to, and get rewarded properly by, a game that should have so much going for it – just because we’ve all gotten so good at shrugging off regular-season contests and coping with untimely or self-imposed hurdles such as injuries or “NWT-rest” excuses – maybe we should just cancel Christmas altogether.
Sorry to stuff your stocking with coal, but this game between the most successful teams of the past two seasons has been at risk for days of being pooh-poohed into irrelevance by blasé folks who’d probably yawn at the news of a Beatles resurrection tour.
No, it won’t impose anything binding on their next meeting Jan. 16 in Oakland, nor on a potential rubber match if the Warriors and the Cavaliers go best-of-seven in June for a third straight championship round.
No, there are no rings to be won Sunday afternoon, no legacies to be cemented quite yet. The winners and the losers could swap positions several times between now and somebody’s parade (which could take place in San Antonio, L.A, Toronto or a few other downtowns, it still must be noted).
Fine. We get it. Miles to go and all of that. Yet there still are reasons to get excited about this particular showdown, regardless of the affirmations the losers will give themselves afterwards. Among them:
These teams aren’t just rivals
They’re repeat rivals, penciled in to face each other in Oakland and Cleveland across nearly three weeks again as spring turns into summer. They are trying to achieve the NBA’s first instance of two opponents meeting in three consecutive Finals, something that never even happened in the two great Celtics/Lakers eras, first with Bill Russell, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the rest, later with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
NBA’s reigning “super teams”
You can’t have owners in various small markets and honchos at the league HQ in Manhattan’s Olympic Tower wringing their hands over talent proliferation with just a few franchises, and then not get excited when two of those fortunate few actually square up. People want to see what punch actually packs at this logical checkpoint in the season and they’re eager to learn which one’s more hissable, which one’s more rootable going forward. From LeBron James’ history of simultaneously dazzling and annoying fans nationwide to the rich-getting-way-too-richer backstory of Golden State’s continuous improvement, these guys are as polarizing as the league can offer in 2016-17.
Kevin Durant on his injection into Warriors-Cavs, his matchup with LeBron on Christmas pic.twitter.com/wUAM4qExOG
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 24, 2016
Durant adds a layer of unfair
And yet, unfair might be what’s required against James. Considering the way James, ablaze, led the Cavaliers out of the darkness of a 3-1 deficit to win such a comeback for the first time in Finals history. Consider too how he dragged an undermanned team missing both Kevin Love and, after Game 1, Kyrie Irving to six games against the heavily favored Warriors in the 2015 Finals. Golden State’s pursuit and signing of Durant – arguably the NBA’s second-best player and James’ Finals face-to-face counterpart in 2012 while with OKC – may feel like overkill right now as it shreds opponents in November and December. But this becomes just the latest challenge for James, who would be playing in his seventh consecutive Finals in search of his fourth ring. Durant still seeks his first.
The Cavaliers are different, the Warriors are different and we’ve all abided by the “Do Not Open Till Dec. 25” stickers to earn this glimpse of how they clash
James isn’t a lock to lead Cleveland in scoring for a change. Kevin Love is hearing more All-Star chatter than trade deadline murmurs. The Cavs have mastered the Warriors’ style, making a heady 40 percent of their 3-pointers this season and shooting at a pace to shatter their franchise record for the third straight year. The Warriors actually have dropped off in arc accuracy but their 2-point rate (.558) never has been better and they are moving the ball at Globetrotters pace. Consider: the assists gap between the No. 1 Warriors (31.2 apg) and No. 2 Rockets (25.5) is greater than the gap between Houston and No. 27 Memphis (20.0).
Curry looks like an underdog again
While it appears Durant simply has made the Warriors “more so,” it has come with a little shade thrown on Curry, the two-time Most Valuable Player (and only unanimous winner last time). His production is down, even on a 36-minutes basis, most notably in points (from 31.7 per 36 last season to 26.6) and in field goal attempts (from 21.3 to 18.6). His PER (from 31.5 to 24.4), true shooting percentage (.669 to .634), assists percentage (33.7 to 27.0) and usage (32.6 to 28.4) also are down, to the point that if the MVP balloting were held today, Curry probably would not crack the top five. Likewise, he’d be a backup in the all-NBA backcourt to James Harden and Russell Westbrook. A big Christmas performance, matched up against Irving, would be a marvelous way for Curry to reassert his supremacy – or at least remind everyone he’s far from done yet.
Neither team will handicap itself
While that’s a common assumption, that Steve Kerr or Tyronn Lue will hold some strategy in abeyance Sunday so as to maintain an edge if these teams meet up in the Finals, it rarely has been done. As one veteran NBA player said, the opposite is far more likely.
“Both teams know everything about the other,” he said. “What they’ll watch for in the playoffs is what other teams do that has success [against Golden State or Cleveland] and then try to incorporate that into their style. They’re looking for things.”
Seeing whatever new wrinkles each team has – Will the Cavs risk James’ energy having him guard Durant? Is Cleveland without Smith able to match the Dubs’ firepower? What does JaVale McGee bring to this dynamic besides comic relief? – adds intrigue but won’t answer every last question.
So what we get Sunday won’t actually be a Game 8. But it will be far from a Game Zero.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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